Penn State project to bolster Mid-Atlantic specialty crop industry

October 22, 2008

University Park, Pa. — More than a third of all farm sales comes from specialty crops such as fruits, vegetables and tree nuts. With consumers increasingly demanding food that is safe, nutritious and locally grown, the Mid-Atlantic specialty crop industry is sure to grow.

Maximum growth will depend on collaboration among different parts of the industry from the farmer through the processor and marketer to the consumer, and also involve institutions of higher learning to provide science-based innovations and an educated workforce. Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences is responding to this need by developing a Mid-Atlantic network of producers, processors, wholesalers, retailers, researchers and educators to form a coalition to address strengths and weaknesses in the specialty crop food industry.

According to Kathleen Kelley, project coordinator and associate professor of horticultural marketing and business management at Penn State, consumer demands are increasing as well as rising transportation costs for producers in California, Florida and the Southern Hemisphere countries who supply fresh fruits and vegetables to the Mid-Atlantic region. "This is creating a tremendous opportunity for specialty crop producers in the Mid-Atlantic, but we need to have research, education and extension programs in place to support them," she said.

That's why Kelley and other Penn State experts in horticulture, plant pathology, entomology, agricultural economics and food sciences are teaming up with industry to assess changes in consumers' purchasing and eating habits and the impact of those changes on industry opportunities. "Many growers and others in the food industry don't have access to consumer buying trends and how they will impact their businesses," Kelley explained. "The goal of this project is to get the data to network members so they can make more informed business decisions."

On the consumer attitude side, researchers will be distributing surveys to consumers in five metropolitan areas in the Mid-Atlantic region to determine their attitudes and behaviors towards food purchases. Internet surveys will be conducted quarterly during the project to learn about consumers' responses to reemerging issues, such as rising energy costs and food safety. "All of our findings will be presented at the workshop," Kelley reported. The industry will also have access to the information via monthly e-mail newsletters and the Web site.

The goal for the first year is to get a sense of the future by engaging industry representatives, government and academia in a series of conversations, culminating in a strategic planning workshop to discuss current factors influencing consumer behavior and the impact on the food industry in the Mid-Atlantic, according to Kelley. "We'll establish work groups to develop action plans that include best practice approaches to production, integrated pest management, processing, food safety and understanding consumer behavior."

Kelley also said they plan to work with universities in other states to expand the effort. "We hope this initial project will serve as the foundation for a sustainable effort that will address the needs of producers, markets and consumers in the region for years to come," she said

Ultimately, a larger project will be proposed to carry the strategic plans several years into the future and establish permanent, interactive communication channels. This will allow the specialty crops industry to be responsive to markets and regulatory changes as well as benefitting from modern research output.

The project is being funded by a USDA Specialty Crop Research Initiative grant, whose goal is to solve critical specialty crop agriculture issues, address priorities and solve problems through multifunctional research and extension. For more information about the program, visit http://www.csrees.usda.gov. For more information about the network, e-mail specialtycrops@psu.edu or call (814) 863-5567.

  • IMAGE: Greg Grieco
Last Updated November 18, 2010